Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Denver Post - YouTube U., The Virtual Professors

The Denver Post - YouTube U., The Virtual Professors

Demos from science experiments to shirt-folding bring expert status to amateur instructors.

By Michael Booth
Denver Post Staff Writer


YouTube U.jpgVideo may have killed the radio star, but YouTube has transformed dozens of self-described geeks into celebrity how-to instructors.

The weird-science guy from Ohio.

That St. Paul guitarist who knows all the complex chords for Hmong rock songs.

Those, um, multitalented Brazilian women who can swing their tassles in opposite directions.

You can learn just about anything at the University of YouTube. Cooking classes, computer instruction, foreign-language lessons, homework help, it’s all there, by amateur instructors eager to demonstrate everything from sign language to shirt-folding.

Video sites now allow enthusiasts the world over to share their esoteric knowledge with a potential audience of millions. Talent and circumstance occasionally pluck these natural-born teachers from obscurity to an Internet prominence they never dreamed of.

“I’m getting 200 to 300 e-mail messages a day, just on my YouTube account,” said Greg Kopec, an Ohio computer-networking expert whose series “Do Try This at Home” has become a YouTube favorite.

YouTube editors chose Kopec’s third novelty-science video - balancing forks and a toothpick on a drinking glass, then setting the toothpick on fire - as a featured pick. Within days, more than 74,000 people had watched his 2-minute, 50-second trick.

The how-to videos can be a lively resource for fellow amateurs seeking a specific skill. Short Internet videos are perfect, for example, for demonstrating basic guitar chords to new students. A St. Paul man under the moniker “Stainmeister” gets rave reviews for his guitar demos, which he launched a year ago to promote his native Hmong music.

“If you want to find the chords to, say, music by U2, all you do is Google ‘U2 chord’ and voila!” said Valeng Cha, whose day job is director of the Center for Southeast Asian Research and Education. “But what if you’re Hmong, love Hmong music, and want to learn how to play your favorite Hmong tunes?”

More than 13,000 people have watched Cha’s first posting, chords to a song by the most popular Hmong rock band, The Sounders. He’s now posted 28 other how-to videos, and they’ve been watched more than 152,000 times. Last time he played at a karaoke bar in St. Paul, a stranger came up and asked, “Hey, are you Stainmeister, the guy with all those YouTube videos?”

“I am fairly shocked how YouTube has exposed my ‘hidden talents’ to the world,” Cha said.

Free web videos also give fans the chance to learn from professionals whose work they already admire. The lead guitarist for the acclaimed Austin band Mother Truckers, Josh Zee, has posted brief lessons in country and blues guitar riffs that serve as both savvy publicity and gifts to the audience. Rockabilly legend Brian Setzer can be found giving picking seminars on outtakes from Japanese television.

Standing in front of the WorldWide Classroom, of course, also subjects every wannabe teacher to masses of abuse. The video “How to Get Away From a Carjacker” was viewed more than 300,000 times, with more than a few hecklers observing, “They should rename this ‘How to Get Shot During a Carjacking.”‘

Another hazard of web popularity is the same drawback of “interconnectedness” seen by indie rock stars, fiction writers or other artists who promote themselves by speaking directly to the public. Being popular with “the little people” can be a lot of work.

Kopec spends up to an hour and a half boiling his science tricks down to a 4-minute video, then faces daily requests for more tricks. And those 200 to 300 e-mails keep pouring in daily, expecting replies.

He’d love to turn the videos into some kind of paid “Mr. Wizard” series, seeing as how his hobby is quickly becoming a chore.

“Teaching is my passion,” Kopec said. “But teaching doesn’t pay that well.”

Staff writer Michael Booth can be reached at 303-954-1767 or at mbooth@denverpost.com

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